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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The next big thing: Triangle gaming designers to gather today and tomorrow

Posted by on Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 9:35 AM

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Those heading downtown to the Raleigh Convention Center for the East Coast Game Conference on April 13 and 14 might learn the secrets behind creating the next hit video game that lets players solve a puzzle, learn a skill, or find new ways to dismember an enemy.

The conference’s highlight is “Unreal University,” highlighting Cary-based Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, a game development tool that’s been licensed out to other companies to help create such hits as BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Along with offering previews of such anticipated Epic projects Gears of War 3 and Samaritan, the conference features veteran Unreal Engine 3 developers offer free advice for young designers looking to create their own games with the Unreal Engine. Representatives from major companies such as Bungie (Halo), Insomniac Games (Ratchet & Clank) and many more will also be in attendance, with critique sessions offered for attendees.

Veteran game creator Mark Cerny’s keynote “The Long View” examines a distinct aspect of the Triangle gaming industry: Though it took a few hits in the economic downturn, it’s remained a strong center of creative, technological and economic innovation in the Triangle.

“We’ve been nicked up, but the fundamentals are good,” says Wayne Watkins, project manager with Wake County Economic Development and one of the conference’s co-founders. “It’s not a false economy.”

Watkins touts the 1,000 attendees of last year’s conference and more importantly, House Bill 1973, which went into effect Jan. 1. The bill provides a 15 percent tax credit on “compensation and wages for employees involved in digital media production, or the creation of a platform or engine that runs such digital media.”

Though there have been a few setbacks in the last several years, such as Atomic Games’ Iraq-themed game Six Days in Fallujah losing its publisher shortly before its scheduled release and Cary’s Icarus Studios laying off 70 percent of its staff last year (the company recently raised $8.1 million from investors in efforts for a comeback), Watkins is confident that the local game industry will continue to grow.

“We’re still doing well, and a lot of smart people want to come here,” he says.

Over the last few decades, the area has become a center for a wide variety of video game developers, ranging from casual games (puzzle-type material such as computer solitaire or Angry Birds) to social games (think Farmville) to more elaborate material such as Epic’s ultra-violent, ultra-popular military SF shooter series Gears of War.

Though games have developed increasingly elaborate storylines and visuals (last year’s Heavy Rain offers a crime storyline that stands alongside the best film noir), it’s still easy to dismiss the medium. Roger Ebert, dean of film criticism, notoriously wrote an essay this time last year entitled “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” which he reconsidered a few months later after receiving more than 4,000 negative comments.

More recently, Fox News decried Epic’s latest ultra-violent…well, epic, Bulletstorm, as possibly “the worst video game ever,” citing such gameplay options as shooting your opponents in the privates. This argument proved somewhat ineffective for gaming fans.

Perhaps one of the conference’s attendees will go on to make the game that turns critics around, and still offers plenty of bullet-blasting action. Stranger things have happened.

Keep reading The Independent for an in-depth look at the Triangle’s game development scene.
The East Coast Game Conference runs April 13 and 14 at the Raleigh Convention Center. For more information or to register, visit www.ecgconf.com.

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